AMLO calls gangs, cartels ‘respectful people’ who ‘respect the citizenry’

Mexico’s president said Thursday that the country’s violent criminal gangs and drug cartels are essentially “respectful people” who “respect the citizenry” and mostly just kill each other.

The claims by President Andrés Manuel López Obrador are clearly at odds with the reality of millions of Mexicans who live in areas dominated by drug cartels. The cartels routinely demand protection payments from local residents and kill or kidnap them if they refuse to pay.

A reporter asked López Obrador whether drug cartels behaved well when he visited the township of Badiraguato, Sinaloa — the hometown of imprisoned drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, which he has controversially visited as president about a half dozen times.

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“Always!” López Obrador responded, adding that “Sometimes we come upon people who are strange, but respectful.”

Continuing on the subject of drug cartels at his morning news briefing, López Obrador said “There is something people should know.”

“Fortunately, the attacks that happen in this country generally occur between (criminal) groups,” the president said. “They respect the citizenry.”

López Obrador has long refused to directly confront the cartels, who he claims were forced into criminality by a lack of opportunities. His “Hugs, not bullets” strategy offers job training programs for youths so they won’t become cartel gunmen.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador gives his daily briefing on June 10, 2020, in Mexico City, Mexico. (Photo by Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

In the past, he has also appeared to normalize the gangs’ presence, encouraging Mexicans to negotiate peace pacts among the cartels.

But saying the cartels don’t attack common citizens takes the issue to a new level. Experts and rights activists say thousands of Mexicans have been forced from their homes by cartel violence and extortion, and thousands of business owners, taxi and bus drivers have been killed for refusing extortion demands.

Clandestine grave sites throughout Mexico are filled with the bodies of drug cartel victims.

Thursday’s statements by López Obrador come one week after he said he won’t fight Mexican drug cartels on U.S. orders. In what the president called a “Mexico First” policy, he said “We are not going to act as policemen for any foreign government. Mexico First. Our home comes first.”

Over the years, López Obrador has laid out various justifications for his policy of avoiding clashes with the cartels. In the past he has said “you cannot fight violence with violence,” and on other occasions he has argued the government has to address “the causes” of drug cartel violence, ascribing them to poverty or a lack of opportunities.

López Obrador has also encouraged leaders of the Catholic church to try to negotiate peace pacts between warring gangs.

Explaining why he has ordered the army not to attack cartel gunmen, he said in 2022 that “we also take care of the lives of the gang members, they are human beings.”

He has also sometimes appeared not to take the violence issue seriously. In June 2023, he said of one drug gang that had abducted 14 police officers: “I’m going to tell on you to your fathers and grandfathers,” suggesting they should get a good spanking.

Asked about those comments at the time, residents of one town in the western Mexico state of Michoacán who have lived under drug cartel control for years reacted with disgust and disbelief.

“He is making fun of us,” said one restaurant owner, who asked to remain anonymous because he — like almost everyone else in town — has long been forced to pay protection money to the local cartel.

López Obrador has also made a point of visiting the township of Badiraguato in Sinaloa state at least a half dozen times, and pledging to do so again before he leaves office in September.

It’s also a stance related to prickly nationalism and independence. Asked in November why he has visited the sparsely populated rural township so many times, López Obrador quoted a line from a defiant old drinking song, “because I want to.”

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The president has also imposed strict limits on U.S. agents operating in Mexico, and limited how much contact Mexican law enforcement can have with them.